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Hungary’s Viktor Orbán Threatens to Blow Up EU’s Ukraine Policy

In a letter to Charles Michel, the Hungarian leader demands full review of EU policy on Ukraine.

BRUSSELS — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is threatening to block all European Union aid for Ukraine, as well as the country’s future accession to the bloc, unless EU leaders agree to review their entire strategy of support for Kyiv, according to a letter seen by POLITICO.

In the letter, addressed to European Council chief Charles Michel, the Hungarian leader says that no decision on funding for Ukraine, the opening of accession talks to the EU, or further sanctions against Russia can be taken until this “strategic discussion” happens when leaders gather in Brussels in mid-December.

“The European Council should take stock of the implementation and effectiveness of our current policies towards Ukraine including various assistance programs,” Orban writes in the letter, which is undated but bears the stamp of his office.

He also asks why Europe should continue to support Ukraine at a time when the United States, which has provided the bulk of military aid for Kyiv, may not be able to continue funding due to partisan deadlock over future support.

“The European Council must have a frank and open discussion on the feasibility of the EU’s strategic objectives in Ukraine,” the letter states.

“Do we still regard these objectives realistically attainable? Is this strategy sustainable without robust support from the United States? Can we take continuing support from the United States for granted? How do we conceive the security architecture of Europe after the war,” it goes on.

It adds that “the European Council is not in a position to make key decisions on the proposed security guarantees or additional financial support for Ukraine, endorse further strengthening of the EU sanctions regime or agree on the future of the enlargement process unless a consensus on our future strategy towards Ukraine is found.”

Working around Hungary

Orbán’s letter raises the stakes in a long-running standoff between Budapest and Brussels, which is holding back €13 billion in EU funds for Hungary over concerns that the country is falling afoul of the EU’s standards on rule-of-law.

Without saying so directly, the letter suggests that Budapest could use its veto power to block the disbursement of a planned €50 billion in aid for Ukraine — money that’s needed to fund the Ukrainian government while its armed forces fight back against a full-scale Russian invasion.

In addition to the €50 billion, Orban is threatening to block €500 million in planned military aid for Ukraine, as well as the opening of formal negotiations for Kyiv to join the 27-member union, which leaders were hoping to approve at the next gathering of the European Council on December 14 and 15.

According to one EU diplomat who was granted anonymity to discuss confidential deliberations, Orbán has “booby-trapped” the entire EU decision-making process on Ukraine as part of a strategy to raise pressure on the European Commission to release the €13 billion to Hungary.

The diplomat went on to say that while on other occasions, Budapest has abstained on key votes and allowed the EU to slap sanctions on Russia, on this occasion, “I don’t see that happening.”

“It’s not a matter of neutrality for Hungary,” said the envoy. “It’s about leverage.”

Orbán’s threat comes at a particularly sensitive time for Ukraine, as Kyiv’s armed forces struggle to make gains against invading Russian troops and just after United States National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has warned that the “window is closing” on U.S. aid for Ukraine.

With Hungary ramping up tensions and threatening to hijack the December summit of EU leaders, some countries are already contemplating ways to work around Budapest and keep aid flowing to Kyiv.

One such workaround could see EU countries sending financial aid to Ukraine via bilateral arrangements rather than via EU structures such as the European Peace Facility, which coordinates EU military aid for Kyiv — effectively freezing out Budapest.

But that approach wouldn’t work when it comes to opening formal negotiations for Kyiv to join the EU, as Hungary would have to be part of that process. As a result, and to preserve EU unity, the same diplomat said it wasn’t a good idea to freeze out Hungary quite yet.

“I understand where they are coming from,” the diplomat said with regard to those calling for a Hungary workaround on military aid. “But doing that [circumventing the EPF] would basically undermine the one European mechanism we have for support to Ukraine.”

“It’s the one thing we can show where the EU as a bloc is supporting Ukraine, which shows unity to Russia and also to the United States,” the diplomat continued.

In the event of a Hungarian veto, another option for the EU is simply to let the clock keep running and push key decisions on Ukraine policy to early next year, as Kyiv won’t reach a budget cliff-edge until March.

By deferring a decision on unfreezing EU funds for Budapest, the European Commission could turn the tables by tightening the financial screws on Budapest and forcing compliance on Ukraine.

“It’s arm-wrestling,” added the diplomat, who said the European Commission had so far shown great skill in defusing potential explosions with Budapest.

Source: Politico